There is that wonderful scene in Roman Holiday, where Gregory Peck scares Audrey Hepburn’s princess by pretending to have his hand bitten off by the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth). The Roman marble mask is reputed to bite off the hand of a liar.
During last weekend’s love in between the British PM, Rishi Sunak, and the Italian PM, Giorgia Meloni, they did not visit the Mouth of Truth. If they had it is hard to see how Rishi would have returned home to Yorkshire with a full complement of limbs.
Rishi was in Rome at the invitation of Brothers of Italy, Meloni’s party that is today the standard bearer of the populist Right in Europe. He was there to try and get some of her glamour and her credibility on strict immigration controls back home.
Sunak’s Conservatives have been nominal allies of Brothers of Italy since 2019 when they joined the same European parliamentary group, the ECR. But it is an alliance that has, until now, been one that London has been at pains to keep very quiet.
The reason for this is very simple: her brand of Chritian cultural nationalism with dashings of belief in the ethnic substitution theory of immigration. She also has a harsh and no nonsense Roman Catholic approach to LGBT matters, supporting a change in the Italian constitution to ban LGBT couples from adopting.
All this stuff, kryptonite in UK electoral circles, is nothing to the fact that at last weekend’s shindig not only was Sunak a guest and near playmate of Meloni, but Santiago Abascal the leader of Spain’s Vox party, was also present.
Abascal said of Gibraltar this year, “We will dismantle the networks of piracy, drug trafficking, smuggling and money laundering that extend from Gibraltar and we will apply all the international pressure necessary to recover this occupied territory”, branding the peaceful and law abiding British territory as some sort of pirate port. Only a couple of weeks ago the same gathering was applauding the victory of Geert Wilders.
But more important to Sunak was the appearance of Edi Rama, the Albanian Prime Minister. He was there to talk with both Meloni and Sunak about possible deals to house illegal migrants.
In 2022 the UK Government signed a series of deals with Rama funding redevelopment work, police forensics and infrastructure. Rama is an old friend of Tony Blairs and has for years been advised by Alistair Campbell, Blair’s disgraced former spin doctor.
Rama has taken advantage of the fact that for the past few years Albania’s greatest export is its people (in 2022 alone 12,000 illegally entered the UK, of which 10,000 were men) to extract money and promises from the UK Government. Now he has struck a deal with Meloni to become the offshore processing centre for Italy.
Sunak clearly wants a bit of that. And Rama would want more money.
Meloni has signed a deal with Rama, ratified by the EU early in December, for Albania to take migrants that have landed in Italy – but the deal is not cheap. Albania would take 3,000 per month, for a period of no more than 40 days. If they are accepted for asylum they will be returned to Italy for settlements. If they cannot be sent back to their country of origin, even if they have failed their asylum tests, they will also be sent back to Italy.
For this the Albanians receive all the costs involved in building and staffing the centres, plus 100 million euro per year for their trouble.
The costs of transporting the migrants will also be covered by Italy. While this might sound a good financial deal compared to Sunak spending just shy of 300 million euro and only managing to send a series of Home Secretaries to Rwanda, it will only scrape the surface of the problem for the UK, and will not shift any dials in his or the Conservatives electoral chances.
Yes, the number of Albanians coming to the UK has dropped this year, thanks mostly to the fact that most Albanians that want to come to Britain already have. Even if a deal is to be struck, the costs for the UK will be far greater than for Italy simply due to the process, history, and distance.
But Sunak, whose team has trumpeted the Albanian solution to the UK’s migration woes, was left with nothing. Tirana said ‘no’, and all he managed to do was to pledge money to help Italy and the EU fund its work with Tunisia filtering migrants to Albania.
Sunak claimed in Rome that he was the heir to Maragaret Thatcher on migration. The result was nothing concrete, spending yet more money to no effect, not so much an heir, not even a spare.
It was wise not to go anywhere near the Mouth of Truth, it would have bitten off far more than his hand.